Education, With a Twist

Sixty years of shaking things up with the Columbia Bartending Agency

Illustrations by Ana Gaman

“SIX NIGHTS THAT CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE.” Those were the words splashed across Spec ads, written on flyers posted around campus, whispered from upperclassmen to new students: Change your life by joining the Columbia Bartending Agency.

Since 1965, the CBA — one of the University’s longest-running campus businesses — has given students across all of Columbia’s schools and Barnard the opportunity to learn mixology and then take those skills out into the world, slinging drinks across the city. What other activity on campus could let you meet Jackie Robinson or Jane Fonda; get you access to exclusive spaces like The Dakota or Gracie Mansion; or secure you front-row seats to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade?

In the CBA’s early days, classes were taught by Joseph Reilly, the bar manager at Midtown’s historic Barclay Hotel, but by the early ’80s students who passed the rigorous CBA exam (after memorizing nearly 200 cocktail recipes!) became the instructors, teaching eager pupils everything from martinis to Manhattans to margaritas. The CBA became independent from the University in 2016 and is now a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit; otherwise, not much has changed in nearly 60 years of shaking and stirring. Read on for memories from 50 years of Columbia mixologists.

When asked why he joined the CBA, Mike Slater ’74 jokes, “I spent a lot of time with alcohol anyway, I thought I ought to make some money at it!” He elaborates: “It was wonderful; I got to see all kinds of people and parts of life in New York that I would never otherwise have seen as an undergraduate. Not just fascinating or casual celebrity sightings, but really just very different worlds, very different communities — and you’re right in the middle of them. It was a great experience for a young person.”

Doug Bienstock ’14 agrees. “I went to embassies, donors’ houses, celebrities’ houses; it was always cool getting out of my Columbia bubble. This was a really interesting way to see the rest of the city and what New York was all about. Honestly, the CBA was one of the biggest parts of my Columbia experience.”

George Sands ’73 managed the CBA in his senior year; he recalls meeting Hal Holbrook and Robert Redford at a private party hosted by an Italian director, and had a standout encounter with Jackie Robinson at a party on Riverside Drive: “He was a lovely man, so graceful; a really good guy.”

Jeremy Dickstein ’88 remembers: “In the summer of ’86, there was a big national benefit called Hands Across America. There were maybe a dozen or so tugboats scattered around New York Harbor in celebration. And we had a Columbia bartender on each one, bouncing around the harbor, serving the people watching the festivities.”

For Marco Balestri ’22, who managed the CBA through pandemic closures and helped ensure the agency was restored on campus afterward, a standout event was one of the CBA’s largest undertakings ever: “We contracted with OctFest, which was a concert series hosted by Pitchfork,” he says. “We had about 100 bartenders working for beer and liquor venues from around the world at a two-day festival on Governors Island; I was assigned to a brewery from Barcelona. About 100 of us took the ferry back to the city at midnight, all of us in our black CBA shirts. That was such a fun experience.”

Khalid Husani Barnwell ’97 recalls getting close to a VIP: “I did an event at a community center on the Lower East Side; it was a charity event or fundraiser. The draw was that Tito Puente was going to perform. Toward the end, the organizers said, ‘If you want to watch, you can,’ and I ended up almost backstage, watching from the side — basically 10 feet away from Puente as he was performing. That was such a highlight, to be so close — something that I never would have been able to do otherwise.”

Dalia Cohen ’93, SIPA’93, the CBA’s first female manager, says her experience with it was instrumental to her College experience and to feeling at home in NYC: “I was someone who had just gotten off the plane from Zimbabwe, and suddenly I was bartending at gallery openings and book signings and private dinner parties and weddings,” she says. “As a foreigner, it also gave me things to do on holidays. I wasn’t going to go all the way home, so with the CBA I had the option to do a lot of bartending. One time I was the bartender in an apartment that overlooked the Thanksgiving Day Parade!”

Fred Bremer ’74, GSAS’81 notes, “It was probably the only way a college kid could see a lot of New York that they otherwise would not have.” He recalls working an event at Dustin Hoffman’s townhouse: “I remember waiting, and I was getting things set up downstairs and then I heard him come down the stairs. Just that unique Dustin Hoffman voice.”

Amanda Tien ’20 bartended for composer Lin- Manuel Miranda twice: “Coming from Detroit, it was quite a way to be introduced to New York City!”

Richard Witten ’75 sits on the CBA’s executive board and helped incorporate it as an independent 501(c)(3) in 2016. “It was a fantastic source of revenue, and I made lasting friendships with other bartenders in the agency,” he says. “And it shone a light on a part of New York City that, as a student, I never would have seen; in those days it was pretty easy to be insular and just stay on campus. Those were not easy times in New York. This sort of forced you out into the real world of the city, which wasn’t nearly as scary as people would lead you to believe.”

His highlights include working a New Year’s Eve party at a palatial Dakota apartment, and bartending at a party for James Taylor and Roberta Flack. “They performed in this massive loft,” Witten says. “My jaw was dropping, being that close to these people.”

In the CBA classes, students take notes on everything from methods of mixing cocktails to understanding flavor profiles to preventing allergy contamination. Five consecutive weeks of two-hour sessions (one hour each of lecture and practical time) culminate in a final exam; students who receive a 95 percent or above are eligible to interview to join the agency as bartenders and instructors. The exam could throw any kind of curveball: Alumni recall being given off-the-wall drink orders like a Grasshopper or a Pink Squirrel, along with requests to tell a joke or recount a funny memory to highlight their multitasking skills. But for the students who make it into the CBA, becoming a bartender is more than just pouring drinks.

Dickstein heard about the CBA during his freshman year: “It certainly looked a lot more flexible, lucrative and attractive than checking IDs at the library or flipping burgers, so I was intrigued.” He continues, “It was a fun social activity, and it paid better than normal campus jobs. For someone like me, who was probably a little more shy and introverted in high school, the whole bartending experience — from working for the CBA to later running it — really helped me to be a much more outgoing, social, extroverted guy. I showed up as a shy freshman, and I ended up being on committees, doing things like Residence Hall. I think the bartending was quite important in getting me out of my shell.”

Michael Behringer ’89 says he picked up great skills from his time in the CBA: “I was a financial aid student and was always looking for opportunities for good jobs that were fun. I remember that course so vividly because we had such a great time taking it and experimenting with cocktails. The lessons that you learn from bartending serve you throughout life — how to deal with people, how to have conversations, how to make everyone feel welcome.”

Other students agree that bartending was a great way to have a flexible income. Marie Craft ’88 says, “My parents weren’t keen on me working while I was studying. So this was one way I could earn a little money on the side.” Barnwell joined the summer before his senior year: “I was also running track, so most of my weekends were gone. I took advantage of the events that were happening on weeknights and Sundays. The CBA gave me the time to have an extra job.”

Matt Sodl ’88 remembers the great conversations and connections: “People at these parties liked to talk to the bartender; they want to talk about your education, and when I would tell people I’m a football player, that obviously got a lot of conversation going, too. It was a great icebreaker and a way to meet a lot of people.” Kimberly Yao ’96 says, “I think that there’s something fantastic about being in a position where you’re inter- acting with different people. One of the nicest things about the agency was this sense of conviviality and the opportunity to interact socially with people with whom you might not otherwise come into contact.”

Student bartenders teach and manage the agency themselves, assigning jobs, organizing schedules and balancing finances. For many students, the CBA was their first taste of what a real-world job would be like. Uchenna Acholonu ’96 notes, “The class was a lot of fun as a student, but then honestly it was much, much more fun as a teacher. I definitely refer to myself as a professor of mixology. Everybody had their own little take on the class, but I really liked to focus on the history of some of the drinks we would serve and the history of the type of alcohol. After college, I taught high school for a while and I definitely drew upon some of my CBA classroom persona.”

Cohen agrees, “Of all my college experiences, this was one that truly educated me and gave me practical knowledge about how to think about managing people.”

Bienstock says, “About halfway through [my time with the CBA], I started teaching and writing the curriculum, so I did fewer gigs, but that experience was just awesome. The group of teachers was so diverse and so fun, and the energy we had — I so enjoyed working with them, and we got to be really close friends. We were teaching students from all different walks of life and even people from outside the University! My first real job came out of the CBA; I was one of the first bartenders at Jacob’s Pickles. Before they opened the restaurant, the bar managers took our class, and then they asked us to provide bartenders who wanted to interview. I helped get their cocktail program off the ground and got to work in a real bar.”

Many CBA alumni now hire from the agency to staff bartenders for their own social events; both Sands and Behringer spoke about how they have enjoyed connecting with younger generations of Columbians this way. For Ana Salper ’96, things have truly come full circle: “One of my favorite memories — and I’m 49 so this particularly resonates with me — was working for three women who were turning 50; they were celebrating together because they were best friends. They had gone to Barnard, I believe.

“I was in the kitchen preparing hors d’oeuvres and the three of them came in and they were just laughing and giggling hysterically. There was just so much love. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ and they said, ‘We all turned 50 this year and we never thought we would still be having parties together when we were 50. But here we are!’ They were very, very happy. I remember thinking it was so aspirational, like, ‘If I’m like them when I’m 50 and I still have my close friends from college, I’ve done something right with my life.’ And I do still have those friends! So I love that.”